Office of the President
December 18, 2004
UW-Eau Claire Commencement:
"A Great Idea Occurs Three Times"
President Kevin Reilly, University of Wisconsin System
Thank you for that kind introduction, Chancellor Mash. I understand that you have come to personally know many of these students during their years here at UW-Eau Claire, and I’m sure your unflagging support for their hard work has helped them along the way. As they reflect on their college years, they will, I’m sure, fondly remember your first-rate leadership, your superb guidance, and something else they already miss — your black mustache!
Graduates, my heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you. And to your families! I am delighted to join you today in celebrating your commencement and helping launch you on your post college careers. My goal is to make the launch a smooth and swift one.
Asa Hutchinson, a former member of Congress from Arkansas, remarked that "Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need to have you there in order to have the party, but they don’t expect you to say much."
Well, I’ll try not to say too much, but being Irish, and still very much awake, I have a few words to add to your commencement "party."
For the rest of your lives, December 18 will always be a very, very special day. Other milestones have occurred on this day in history, including the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery and, more recently, the 1997 release of HTML 4.0 by the world wide web consortium. No doubt we’ll always think of you and your colleagues as the html generation.
But, on this December 18, you are moving your tassels to the other side of your mortarboards, and you are gaining a place in the wonderful and dynamic community of University of Wisconsin alumni. As such, I hereby bestow upon you the unofficial title of "UW Alumni Ambassador." Being a graduate of a UW System campus, you are now in the company of some of the world’s most capable, accomplished and respected citizens. Their contributions ― both modest and grand ― are treasured across the globe.
I hasten to add that no salary comes with your new ambassadorship. But, I can promise many delightful benefits in exchange for your willingness to share your UW story. And what a tale you can tell!
You can sing the praises of your favorite UW-Eau Claire professor, who sent the class into fits of laughter while taking time to make sure you understood the magic behind the academic mystery. You can spread the word about the counselor who helped you set the bar high, and best of all, helped you to meet your mark. You can tell this story to the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, to your local legislators, to your parents, to the Governor – to anyone who will listen – about the compassion, excellence and support of those faculty and staff who helped make your college experience all it could be.
But with your degree and these special relationships has come some new responsibilities, and I’m talking about the responsibility to share your knowledge, your talents, and your UW-Eau Claire learning experience with the rest of the world.
Many of you may be aware that, simply by virtue of your presence here today, you have taken a road far less-traveled. Just 25 percent of Wisconsin residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the contributions you are likely to make as a college graduate will have a demonstrable, positive impact on the community and state in which you live and work. And, by the way, we hope you will remain in Wisconsin to work, or return here at some point in your career! On second thought, Don, close the doors – let’s just keep them here!
Sociological research at UW-Madison has shown that individuals with college degrees are healthier, more philanthropically inclined, more active volunteers, and are more civically engaged.
In that regard, this class is already a step ahead. Every one of the undergraduates we honor today has already made a difference by donating at least 30 hours of time and energy to help others through service-learning projects and volunteer work in the community.
By my rough count, that’s nearly 20,000 hours. Think about that – we’re talking about well over two years of dedicated service to your community, applying the knowledge you gained here at UW-Eau Claire. Indeed, the service of this graduating class is truly a model for the nation, and as you know, the nation is watching. There will continue to be national debate about the kinds of public service that will demanded of future graduates. And as a newly minted unofficial UW Alumni Ambassador, your responsibility includes continuing this public service involvement and, when you are able, giving back to the university so that we can ensure that future generations of students have access to the best UW-Eau Claire can offer.
Perhaps a good way to start your ambassadorship might be by talking to someone who sends you a card of congratulations on your commencement. Tell them about the service-learning opportunities you had while at UW-Eau Claire. Tell them the stories of the children, families or local organizations you helped through your community work. And most importantly, tell them about what you learned during your service.
My guess is that by telling these stories, you will again be serving the university, this time as a source of inspiration, encouraging those individuals, and those next in line to hear your story, to serve the community in their own way. What a difference your stories will make!
In addition to giving back to the community, college graduates like you are also more likely to be actively engaged in local and national politics, and to become influential community leaders. Your UW-Eau Claire education has given you the skills and creativity you need to be such an engaged citizen.
I recently re-read a commencement address by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet. In his address, Seamus talks about the connections between art and life, which he describes as the rhythm of "getting started, keeping going, and getting started again."
To illustrate his point, Heaney quoted a Sufi teacher who observed: "A great idea will come to you three times. If you go with it the first time, it will do nearly all the work for you. Even if you don’t move until the second time, it will still do half the work for you. But, if you leave it until the third time, you will have to do all the work yourself."
Each one of you has already seized that great idea once – you matriculated at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire – and the university has done a lot of the work of educating you. Now, the great idea is returning for a second time, and, as you prepare to fulfill your own hopes and dreams, you will work a lot harder building on the foundation established at UW-Eau Claire as you bring your own passion, energy and creativity to making the world a better place.
And, as the great idea comes around for the third time, I ask you to step up to your roles as UW ambassadors. The long-term future of the University of Wisconsin is about our capacity to make real the hopes and dreams of the next generations of UW students ― your younger brothers and sisters, the kids you engaged in your community work, your children, even your grandchildren. In addition to sharing your stories of service and learning with those around you, your unofficial UW Alumni Ambassadorship comes with the responsibility to make sure generations to follow have the same opportunity for a life-changing experience. And that time, that third time for this great idea, you’ll have to do most of the work yourself. And, believe me, we’ll need all of your efforts in order to keep the University of Wisconsin great.
There’s no one who can tell our story better. I ask you to work together – with one voice – to articulate this university’s value, its needs, and its positive impact in educating students, providing opportunity for Wisconsin citizens, and strengthening the state’s economy. The university’s future depends on your voice, and those of your fellow students and graduates.
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again. Fortunately for you, I’m not talking about this commencement address, but about your futures. By graduating from this remarkable university, you have reached a defining moment in your lives. There’s no going back. Your next step is not without risk, but it’s a step worth taking. And the voice within you says take it, keep going, move ahead. Start again.
Your time at UW-Eau Claire may be coming to a close, but as you start again, open yourselves to the continuing pleasure of learning and growing. May the appreciation of teaching, the exhilaration of knowledge and the thrill of discovery stay with you throughout your adventures as a lifelong learner.
I want you to know how proud we are of your achievement here today. We know that you have worked hard to earn these degrees. and we are excited for you as you face the many opportunities the future will bring. Thank you for being part of the UW-Eau Claire — and the UW System — community. Know that wherever in the world — or even into space — your fate takes you, you will remain a part of us, and we of you.
Graduates, ambassadors, my best wishes to each and every one of you and to your families. Congratulations. Keep going. And hold on to that great idea when it pays its next visit.